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Interactive Mankala Games on the Web

Names and Places

Mankala, also spelled Mancala, is the general name for many versions of a board game. Mankala games are played in much of Africa and parts of Asia and South America. Hundreds of millions of people of different languages and cultures play many different versions of the game. The name Mankala comes from naqala, an Arabic word meaning "to move something around". The game has hundreds of different names. It is usually named after the seeds, stones or board in the local language. For example:

Name People Country
Wari, Owari Asante
Wolof, Mandingo
Senegal, Gambia
Aw?l?, Awal? Fulani
Baule, Kru
Cote d'Ivoire
Ay?, Ay?ay? Yoruba Nigeria
Elee Iteso Kenya
Bao Swahili Tanzania
Mweso Ganda Uganda
Mefuvha Bavenda South Africa
Colombo Tamil Sri Lanka


The equipment is inexpensive and the board is easy to make. The smooth board and playing pieces have a pleasurable, stress-relieving feel. The dropping of pieces makes a rhythmic sound. The rules are simple. Even a child can learn to play. The game prepares young children for counting and basic mathematics. The rewards are tangible. Even the loser harvests some seeds for himself. The winner is not determined by chance. Mankala is a strategy game like chess or go that takes a long time to master. The game is a timeless tradition. Players feel they are returning to their human origins.


Mankala is one of the oldest games in the world. Its origins are disputed; a similar game was played in Egypt, Nubia, Sumeria, Cyprus, and elsewhere in northern Africa and the Middle East over 3000 years ago. It may have started as a system of accounting and record-keeping like an abacus.

Social Context

Mankala is played mostly in the dry season: it rarely rains, there is less agricultural work, and the seeds are available. It is generally played outdoors, in the daytime, after work. Only divinities, ancestors and rulers are allowed to play the game at night. To assert their masculine authority, adult males, elders and rulers usually play separately from women and children, who often play a simplified version of the game. Many game boards have 12 cups because of African religions that worship 12 ancestors. Although Mankala is widely played for entertainment, it is also used in fertility, initiation and funeral rituals.


The game pieces can represent men, wives, children or cattle. Africans often use bean-like seeds, palm nuts, stones, cowrie shells, or dung balls.

The pieces should be round and smooth so they are easy to pick up and drop quickly. They should be nearly identical. You can use bean seeds, jelly beans, marbles, or metal ball bearings.


Mankala boards come in many shapes and sizes. Artists often carve them in the shape of objects in their area, like boats or fish. The board can represent a cattle enclosure, a village, or the universe. In Africa, the board is usually carved from hardwood. It can also be made from rock or clay, or simply by digging holes in the ground. The board usually has 2 to 4 rows of 4 to 12 cups, also called holes, pits, or houses. When there are 12 cups, they are sometimes named after the months of the year. Two larger Mankalas, also called home pits or reservoirs, are located at the sides or ends. You can make a 2-by-6 board from an egg carton. Cut off the top with a scissors and attach it to the bottom using glue or tape. Attach two short paper or plastic cups. You might also want to attach a wood base.


Mankala can be played in many ways. Here is one version of the game called Ay?ay?.

Equipment Board with 2 rows of 6 cups
48 pieces
Players 2
Setup Players sit on opposite sides.
Put 4 pieces in each cup.
Object To capture the most pieces

In his turn, a player takes all the pieces from one of the 6 cups in his home row and puts one piece in each following cup, moving counter-clockwise. If the last piece lands in a cup on the opponent's side, and if the cup contains 2 or 3 pieces, the player captures them and puts them in his home cup. If the immediately preceding cup has 2 or 3 pieces, they are also captured, and so on. The game ends when a player cannot take his turn, or no capture is possible.


The number of pieces per cup at the start can be 3 to 6, or different for each cup. In multiple-lap games, a player continues his turn until a piece lands in an empty cup. When landing in an empty cup on one's own side, capture from the opposite cup. The home cup can be considered part of the player's home row.


Mankala requires concentration, counting, anticipation, and planning. In Africa, players distract and rush their opponents by shouting at them, telling them to hurry up, or moving quickly themselves. A player can create a collection of pieces that, if used carefully, can make multiple captures at once. This collection can get very large, but no player is allowed to touch them for the purpose of counting, so it is necessary to keep track mentally. To anticipate the opponent's moves, it is often helpful to look at the game from the opposing side. Good players can predict and plan several moves in advance.


African mankala.National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1984. (folded sheet)

Cheska, Alyce Taylor. Traditional games and dances in West African nations.Schorndorf: K. Hofmann, 1987, pp. 44-46.

Hopson, Darlene Powell, Hopson, Derek S. and Clavin, Thomas. Juba this and Juba that: 100 African-American games for children.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp. 90-92.

Mankala and Ay?ay?.National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1998. (single sheet)

Odeleye, Chief A. O. Ay?, a popular Yoruba game.Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Pingaud, Francois and Reysset, Pascal. L'Awele : le jeu des semailles africaines.Paris : Chiron-Algo, 1995.

Russ, Laurence. Mancala games.Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications, 1984.

Sutherland, Efua Theodora. Playtime in Africa.New York, Atheneum, 1962, p. 13.